Converting tacticians into strategists

Making the leap from being an expert in the craft of communications to a strategist in the business is not necessarily as difficult as it may seem, says Bob Feldman.

What’s the number-one complaint business leaders have about their communications staffs?

According to our firm’s recent research into this question, it’s that most communications staffers other than the CCO don’t see the big picture. They are communications-oriented tacticians, not business-oriented strategists.

Can it be fixed? Making the leap from being an expert in the craft of communications to a strategist in the business is not necessarily as difficult as it may seem.

That comes with one major caveat, though. The CCO must make an honest, objective assessment of the talent in the communications organization and not tolerate anyone who doesn’t exhibit the intellect, curiosity, and passion required for the business. Some things can’t be taught and those are three of them. My own experience would suggest that such a review, if done honestly, would result in about a 10% to 20% staffing change in most organizations. That’s not so bad, all things considered, and should be actively embraced.

With the remaining talent, there are some steps that can help them elevate their behavior and stature in the organization.

The first is to better understand what clients really want. It sounds simple, but this assessment is done way too infrequently. Evaluate what characteristics make others "trusted advisers" to your clients. Do they challenge conventional wisdom? Do they anticipate issues and engage in conversations on these issues prior to larger meetings? Do they share insights into the business via articles they read independent of their specific functional responsibility? Do they proactively offer their expertise to others in the business unit? Do they seek to cultivate a bit of a personal relationship beyond the transactional nature of business? Do they see the big picture? Can they articulate top-level corporate goals in both financial and strategic terms and then relate those objectives to their own work?

The benefits that accrue to individuals who become strategists and advisers are many. For example, clients will often proactively seek out their advice and frequently ask them to be involved in aspects of the business they otherwise might not be. In so doing, they learn to appreciate the contributions the function can make to business performance.

One challenge most practitioners should take is to set aside a Saturday or Sunday morning to consider specific areas of expertise they have developed over just the past five years. Often, we are so busy working that we rarely connect the dots and inventory our own intellectual capital. 

If you’ve worked in an industry sector for several years, if you’ve managed high-profile media, or if you’ve driven a variety of marketing initiatives, you probably know a lot more than you realize. And capturing that knowledge – and codifying it in a way that is insightful and useful to business leaders – is often a good first step in moving up the tactician-strategist ladder.

There is also a good deal of psychology to advising.

For example, how can a 35-year-old director "challenge" a 50-year-old business-unit president? It can be an intimidating situation, for sure. The best approach is to learn that one’s ability to challenge is earned over time and through experience. So focus on the smaller issues and demonstrate deep knowledge at the intersection of business and communications. Insights into how online communities are talking about your business likely have real value to your organization. Knowledge of what senior editors are saying about you and your competitors is likely of high interest to your leadership. Considering how you might activate a subset of your employee population to brainstorm a customer problem has obvious benefits. These are all examples of issues you should own because you have unique insights and are of high importance to the business. Focus on high value.

Another aspect of the psychology of advising is to appreciate that reaching out in your organization and bringing in others with specific expertise is usually seen as a sign of strength rather than weakness. Too often, people feel they must know everything. They think acknowledging the need to bring in someone else will reflect poorly on them. In my experience, good business leaders think just the opposite. They want the best talent at the table and part of that equation is having people who know who the best talent is and who has the confidence to marshal it.

Becoming a trusted adviser isn’t easy, but with the right fundamentals in place, this is a skill just like any other. There are many articles and books to read on this subject. Given the virtual unanimity among corporate business leaders that they want to see better performance in this regard, making this a priority should be a serious consideration.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a digital and management consulting firm. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com. His column focuses on management of the corporate communications function.

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